Long have we suspected something amiss with creative people. Think Mozart, van Gogh or Edgar Allen Poe (pictured above). Think bloggers tapping away in the wilting hour with candle wax all dripped on the table and tongues lolling about their heads.
Indeed writers and poets are so evidently crazy that the psychologist James C. Kaufman even invented the term ‘Sylvia Plath Effect‘ to distinguish the superiority of craziness displayed by poets as compared to writers. Implicit in this coinage is that writers and poets are both on that same spectrum of mental illness that might lead them to stick their head in an oven just as Sylvia Plath tragically did following her successful publication of The Bell Jar.
As an interesting aside … James C. Kaufman posted a link to this article on his Twitter feed. This is what he had to say … you can click on the jpg below to link to his twitter account if you want to follow him too.
I’m sure he doesn’t suck. In fact he seems very creative.
Anyway, my self aggrandisement complete … what is this elusive depressive characteristic that only some of us claim to possess? What is creativity? And does it really correlate with mental illness, or is it just that non creative people believe creative people to be insane?
Certainly there is an entire history of circumstantial evidence and also a reasonable body of peer reviewed scientific literature on the subject. But research published this week in the Journal of Psychiatric Research claims to have definitively linked creativity with mental illness and suicide, and it has done so on a grand scale.
The Swedish researchers from the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm conducted a 40 year prospective study on more than a million Swedish citizens. A prospective study is one that requires subject monitoring over time as opposed to simple analysis of data retrospectively. If the time scale alone is not grand enough for you then consider that the study was also a ‘total population’ study, which is exactly as it sounds, hence the million plus unwitting statistics of the study.
The researchers, led by Dr. Simon Kyaga, have previously published that people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as their direct relatives, are over-represented in ‘creative’ occupations. Their latest offering extends upon that information not only by using a far larger data set but also by including other definitions of what we politically incorrectly refer to as ‘crazy’. This list of creative illnesses included schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa, and completed suicide. Apparently failed suicide was not disorderly enough to make the cut.
The researchers were also intent on proving that authors, of all the creative professionals, are indeed the most mentally disturbed. Strangely, their definition of ‘creative professions’ included both scientific and artistic occupations. I can’t help but wonder where that leaves the classification of the science blogger … hmm. For a moment consider this diagram I constructed from my imagination. Now I’m no population creativity psychology researcher person, but I think I may have found a flaw in Dr. Kyaga’s data. Observe.
As you can see I believe that Scientists and Artists are at opposite ends of the creativity spectrum. I have absolutely no statistical data to support this, but I am a scientist and I work with, and have worked with hundreds of scientists over the past decade. I know a few artists too, but we are not debating the obvious creative merits of artists here, only scientists. In my experience most scientists are decidedly un-creative. The very training for science researchers is designed to extract any possible element of creativity within us. We are trained to conduct strict protocols and not to deviate from said protocols. And these protocols are really just like following a recipe. Chefs are often creative, but that does not mean that downloading the latest recipe to include liquid nitrogen will make you an oxymoronic creative cook.
You will also note that I include a section in the curve for mental illness as a correlate of absent creativity. We scientists are well known to display our own spectrum of mental condition. Think science geek, science nerd with no personal skills. Think autism or Aspergers. These spectral ideas are nothing new of course, after all, I am a scientist.
Overall the Swedish study found that ‘creative’ professionals were not more likely to suffer any of the identified mental illnesses with the exception of bipolar disorder. Perhaps this is not surprising as the scientists might well have cancelled out the artists! Have you ever had a dinner party at which your two guests of honour were a scientist and an artist? Of course you have, and so you know what occurs. A vacuum. A vaccuum inside a Bell jar, right in the middle of the curve.
However, when analysed from the alternate perspective the researchers did discover positive data that authors in particular were far more likely to suffer schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide, all of which happen to be correlates of each other by the way…
Of course correlation based studies are always susceptible to the chicken and egg argument. In this case it is unclear if people who suffer these mental illnesses are more inclined to pick up a pen, or if people who attempt to make a career out of writing are driven to depression, drug use or suicide. The research team would argue that because they saw these correlations extend to relatives of creative people there is no chicken and egg. But I would retort that perhaps the depressive nature of being an author extends all the way to one’s relatives. Remember the researchers did not specify that the authors be successful. There are sure to be differences between people in creative professions, and people who are actually creative. I cannot imagine that all these Swedish authors and their families are in receipt of Harry Potter-esque royalty payments. Granted Sweden has a very healthy crime fiction industry, but not that healthy. The point is, maybe a failed author is not really all that creative. Does lack of creativity lead to failure? And is it creativity or failure that leads to suicide?
Circumlocutiously we return to the original conundrum. What is creativity anyway? There are of course multiple dictionary and Wikipedia definitions of creativity, but such throw away lines do no justice to the concept. Central to all of them is that creativity implies originality ie, creation. Duh! The plus side to such rudimentary definition is that creationists would have to consider the possibility that God must be the very essence of mental disturbance. After all, He created everything didn’t he? Those who insist that God is dead might even find joy in this possibility as one must assume that with such vast creative powers He too succumbed to the Sylvia Plath Effect. But where in the universe does one find an oven of such immense proportion? If I were a creative person I might suggest the Sun. Hmmm … did the Egyptians worship the correct deity after all? See Akhenaten and his worship of the sun.
So if being on the very cusp of the creativity bell curve, so much so that one finds oneself all the way under the Bell Jar itself, is a hallmark of mental illness, then perhaps creative and crazy are just synonyms for extreme. Whatever the case may be, it is clear, even without the need for 40 year prospective total population studies, that a little bit of crazy is a good thing.
For more Science Satire click this LINK or comment below